The Blood of the Grapes in the Old Testament
LOT AND HIS DAUGHTERS (detail)
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
In the Old Testament, the word ‘wine’ appears 173 times, and ‘vine’ 114 times. Wine in the Bible takes many forms and is frequently shown as a dangerous drink. As deceptive as Eve’s serpent, it can control people’s actions and lead to their downfall. Wine is shown as the accomplice of debauchery, murder and cheating. A drunken Noah appears nude; Absalom plies Amnon with drink before murdering him; Lot’s daughters seduce their intoxicated father; Belshazzar serves his guests wine in sacred vessels stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem by his father, Nebuchadnezzar II. Only The Grapes of Canaan and The Song of Songs eschew this negative representation of wine: the grapes of Canaan prove the fertility of the Promised Land, while the Song of Songs celebrates the joys of ‘love-drunkenness’ and sensual pleasure, better than the best of wines.
All Bible quotations in English are taken from the 1769 King James Version (KJV) translation of original Hebrew and Greek texts.
AUTUMN or THE SPIES WITH THE GRAPES OF THE PROMISED LAND
(AUTOMNE ou LA GRAPPE DE RAISIN RAPPORTÉE DE LA TERRE PROMISE)
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a ruler among them" (Numbers 13:1-2)... "And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain: And see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; And what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strong holds; And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not...
ABSALOM MURDERS AMNON
Gaspare Traversi (1722-1770)
San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome
Amnon, King David’s son, becomes sick with desire for his sister Tamar. His cousin Jonadab, son of David’s brother Shimeah, asks Amnon what is wrong and Amnon admits his love for Tamar. Jonadab suggests that Amnon fake illness so that King David will come to visit; Amnon can then ask his father to send Tamar to cook for him. Amnon follows Jonadab’s advice and, as planned, Tamar comes to Amnon’s house to make cakes for him. When the cakes are ready, Amnon refuses to eat them and asks to be left alone with Tamar. He asks Tamar to take the cakes into his bedroom, then seizes her and tries to seduce her...
DRUNKENNESS OF NOAH (after restoration)
Giovanni Bellini (b. ca 1426-1516)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, France
An old man sleeps naked. A cup and a bunch of grapes are presented in the foreground. A vine makes up the background. As these three elements represent wine, it is likely that this man is drunk. The sleeping man is Noah. He is surrounded by his three sons, Ham in the middle and Shem and Japhet on either side. Shem and Japhet are good sons who show respect for their father by looking away as they cover his nakedness. Ham, meanwhile, mocks Noah – an act that causes him and his descendents, the Canaanites, to be cursed. Themes presented in the Old Testament often recur in the New Testament. The mockery of Noah by Ham evokes the Roman soldiers’ ridicule of Christ. But this episode is also the invention of wine...
LOT AND HIS DAUGHTERS
Jan Massys (1510-1575)
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
Subjects from the Old Testament, until this point essentially seen as foreshadowing the New Testament, experienced unprecedented popularity in the 16th century. The European Reformation encouraged direct reading of the Bible. This image relates the double-incest of Lot, intoxicated by his daughters, who seduce him in order to continue the human race after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The incestuous act is represented by a lizard, an ‘impure’ animal. The younger daughter carries fruit in her bosom, evocative of desire. The story of Lot, nephew of Abraham, is linked to the destruction of the two great cities. An angel advises Lot and his family to flee without looking back. Lot’s wife ignores the angel’s advice and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his two daughters...
Harmenszoon van Rijn Rembrandt (1607-1669)
National Gallery, London
Six centuries before Christ, Belshazzar, King of Babylon, has organised a feast for the nobles of his court, in the presence of his wives and concubines. Delighting in the opulence of the surroundings, they worship false idols: “They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone” (Daniel 5:4). The precious vessels that they are using for the feast were in fact stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem by Belshazzar’s father, Nebuchadnezzar II: the guests are committing blasphemy by drinking wine from these sacred vessels. As the feast continues, a cloud appears above their heads. Out of this cloud comes a hand, which begins to trace a strange inscription. The king is shocked and frightened by the miracle; however, he does not understand...
THE BELOVED (‘THE BRIDE’)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Tate Britain, London
In order to clearly identify the subject of this painting, Rosetti inscribed a few words on its gilded frame: "My beloved is mine, and I am his (Song of Solomon 2:16) ; Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine (1:2)". The Song of Songs is one of the most beautiful love songs in world literature. It celebrates a couple who meet, lose, search for and finally find each other. It is the most ‘profane’ book of the Old Testament. The Songs are rooted in the oral tradition of Ancient Egypt; in both form and content, they are very close to the erotic poetry of the Middle Empire (around the 10th century BC). Some think that the verses made up part of a lost marriage tradition...
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